By Brad ReDford
Barry Birdsell is a one-man band — of sorts. Actually, he is Washington State University’s only window washer, and the single note he plays is the squeak from a squeegee rubbing across sparkling clean glass.
It may sound “mono-tonous,” but it’s not to Birdsell. It’s a job he has come to love.
Beginning in July 1972, he worked 14 years as a WSU custodian. Then he applied for the job as window washer. Sixteen years later, he is happier now than when he started, and he is going strong with a job he loves and looks forward to every day.
Being a custodian was OK with Birdsell — he moved up the ranks to supervisor — but something was missing. He needed a change of pace.
“It looked like a really interesting job,” he remembers about applying for his current position. “It seemed like something I could really set my teeth into, a real challenge.
“My very first day on the job, I cleaned windows in Webster,” said Birdsell. “I leaned out that 12th floor window, looked down, and I thought to myself, whoa — this is really something!”
Tougher than it looks
Washing windows all over campus is a tough job. Birdsell is the only full-time staff, though in the summer, four time-slip employees assist with the major buildings.
“I thought being a window cleaner would be easier than a custodian, but I soon learned that cleaning windows is a lot harder than I expected,” Birdsell comments.
In a day’s work, he must decide how to clean the windows in a particular building, which windows need help from grounds crew and how to reach windows that can’t be accessed with a ladder.
Because there are so many buildings on campus — about 84 — facilities operations can get the windows cleaned only once in four years. Last year, Birdsell, with the help of the summer time-slip employees, cleaned 23,875 windows in 27 buildings, a little more than one-fourth of the total.
Self, ‘customer’ motivated
In a job of one task — cleaning windows — self-motivation can sometimes be difficult.
Birdsell says Beasley Coliseum is the most difficult building to clean because it is three straight weeks of repetitive work. He says the last part of the building is the hardest because of the everyday routine, but the thought of moving on to the next building and its challenges keeps his interest up.
“When you’re just about done (on one building) you’re ready to move on to another. That gives you a fresh look and regenerates you,” Birdsell said. Going to a different area, seeing old friends and new faces, and knowing that he gets to do something a bit different on the next building refreshes him.
The frequency of the service sets him apart from the custodians — he cleans something that has been dirty for four years. And the person sitting on the other side of the glass is always happy to see that finally something is being done. Birdsell enjoys the fact that people are glad to see him.
He likes pleasing “customers,” but he has other reasons for loving his job. He gets a thrill from the view available only at the heights.
What goes up …
“Webster is definitely my favorite building, because of the challenge of being up that high in the air, to accomplish a job that some people could never do,” Birdsell smiles. He says he’s not afraid of heights, but he does respect high altitudes, knowing that one mistake could cost him his life.
“Sometimes it is pretty tough. I get up there and think, ‘Whoa, am I going to be able to do this?’ Then I think, ‘Ah yeah, I can do this.’”
… Can come down
Well, not always. Birdsell recalls when he fell through a window while working at another job off campus some years ago. That accident gave him about 130 stitches. The fall also revealed, later, that he has type II diabetes. But even this news couldn’t keep him from his work.
What would he do if he lost his job because of budget cuts?
“I would probably retire,” Birdsell said with remorse. “I would miss it a lot; this is my niche in life, this is all I want to do. I have found a personal satisfaction that makes me want to come back to work every day.”
But until that day arrives, Birdsell will continue cleaning windows, walking around campus, standing at the top of buildings and being happy in his job.